Being a criminal lawyer in Minnesota for the last 16 years, I’ve learned that one of the hardest concepts for lay people to grasp with regard to DWI law is the notion of “physical control”. In other words, the idea that someone could be charged or convicted of DWI for just sitting or lying in a motor vehicle. It really is one those head-scratching concepts under the law. Over the last several years, Minnesota Courts have given a very broad definition of “physical control” when it comes to DWI law. Therefore, this latest ruling by the Minnesota Supreme Court should come as no surprise.
In a January 21st, 2010 ruling, State of Minnesota vs. Fleck, the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld a felony DWI conviction, after jury trial, of a driver that was found asleep in his motor vehicle in the parking lot of his apartment complex. When the police arrived, they found Mr. Fleck asleep behind the wheel of his vehicle with the driver’s side door open and the ignition keys in the center console of the vehicle between the driver and passenger seats.
Most often in “physical control” cases, there is the assumption that, although the police did not see the actual driving conduct, it’s clear that the individual actually drove to the location based on other circumstantial evidence. However, in Fleck, the officer’s had determined that Mr. Fleck had not recently driven his motor vehicle because the car was “cold to the touch”, the lights were not on, and it did not look as though the vehicle had been running.
Despite these facts, the Minnesota Supreme Court found that Mr. Fleck was in a position to exercise domain over his vehicle. In other words, without too much difficulty, the Court believed Mr. Fleck could have made his motor vehicle a source of danger on the roadways by awakening, in an intoxicated state, and then subsequently taking the keys from the console and starting the vehicle and driving off.
Mmmmm… is it just me or does this remind anyone else of the Spielberg Movie “Minority Report” with Tom Cruise playing Police Chief John Anderton of the Precrime Unit?
Again, as a Minnesota DWI defense lawyer that has had to argue the concept of “physical control” many times throughout my career, this decision comes as little surprise. Nevertheless, this case is remarkeable in the sense that there was actual evidence that the driver did NOT drive the motor vehicle to the location, but the Court still found “physical control”.